Art Papers  

more from the January/February 2013 issue:

On Being Contemporary –
Re-Activating
the Present:
Joana Hadjithomas
& Khalil Joreige

in conversation
with Nat Muller


Letter From
the Guest Editor:
Niels Van Tomme




Does Anybody Really Know
What Time It Is?


Text / Gregory Zinman


I really know nothing about cinema. It's terrible.
—Christian Marclay

It takes a long time to watch a 24-hour movie. It might take a whole lifetime. Questions of duration, both real and imagined, lie at the mechanical heart of British multimedia artist Christian Marclay's The Clock, 2010, a collaged moving image work that, as its title indicates, tells the time from noon to midnight and back again. Comprised of shots taken from narrative cinema in which clocks are displayed, watches are consulted, and characters actually articulate the time, The Clock is directly synched via proprietary computer software, so that the time occurring onscreen is the same as the time occurring in the real world. In other words, if Paul Newman is looking at a clock when he wakes up in The Clock, that's what time it is wherever you are seeing it. Marclay's timepiece is easily the most talked-about artwork of the past several years, and its relentless temporal march has been alternately derided as a gimmick and hailed as a meditation on time worthy of Proust.


Christian Marclay, stills from The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with stereo sound standard definition footage at 1024 x 576 (16:9 aspect ratio) 25 fps, 24 hours, looped (© Christian Marclay; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

That it is neither does not diminish the piece's hypnotic lure. The Clock pulls off the unlikely trick of combining classical narrative cinema's sense of "what happens next?" with an answer that we glean within minutes of sitting down: time will pass. And yet, my impression, watching the piece in London at White Cube in 2010, was, even after several hours, that I was going to miss something if I left. I had already caught glimpses of Laura, 1944, High Noon, 1952 (a no-brainer), even a snippet of Ozu's Tokyo Story, 1953. Fragments are stitched together with playful Kuleshov effects and meticulous sound editing as Marclay amps up the tension just before and on the hour. But what is there, really, to miss?


Christian Marclay, stills from The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with stereo sound standard definition footage at 1024 x 576 (16:9 aspect ratio) 25 fps, 24 hours, looped (© Christian Marclay; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

Because we are so familiar with the rhythms of cinematic storytelling, apophenic patterns emerge—we look for connections between shots, because that is how we've learned to read moving images. Avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton has a term for this: "Brakhage's Theorem," named after his contemporary, the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose protean, subjective films sought to renew vision and human perception, and are often imbued with a sense of mystery or opacity that require a very high degree of viewer participation in order to even begin to make sense of what is onscreen. Brakhage's Theorem says that for given series of shots, there is a rational narrative, either imposed by the filmmaker or film viewer. In other words, we have to do the work to make the sequences have narrative sense—or we automatically look for narrative, even when that narrative isn't made explicit. More loosely, Frampton described narrative as "a stable pattern of energy through which an infinity of personages may pass, ourselves included."1 So narrative becomes another kind of substitution or reimagining—with The Clock, a reimagining of the self as part of a communal experience that includes the viewing of the artwork and the conflation of screen life with real life.


Christian Marclay, stills from The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with stereo sound standard definition footage at 1024 x 576 (16:9 aspect ratio) 25 fps, 24 hours, looped (© Christian Marclay; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

And yet, just as surely as there are surprises and correspondences, The Clock's structure is so concretized, so constrained by the kinds of scenes that lend it its shape, that little mystery remains. The facts that this is an artwork that does not confound, does not question its status as art, that it is easy to "get," are all reasons for its success. The Clock allows people to zone out or to remember the structure of their day ("Oops, it's 6:15 pm—I have to pick up the dry cleaning before it closes at 7 pm") while rewarding nostalgia and spot-the-source engagement elevated from the level of a bar trivia night only by its lofty confines, and confirms the incredibly banal premise that people enjoy the movies, like movie stars, and that cinema is a time-based medium. The details are not important, because each clip is playing its part, moving the work towards its inexorable conclusion, which unlike life, never actually comes.

Pleasure is contextual, and our horizons of expectations with respect to duration in the moving image shift depending on the shape the image takes and the screening context in which it is presented. Largely absent from the discussion of Marclay's work is such a consideration of the screening and institutional contexts that mark The Clock not as a work of cinema, but as a time-based media artwork. It is a distinction that is not always crucial or applicable to understanding a piece of moving image art, but seems to be essential in parsing how The Clock raises questions about registers of time that have very little to do with the action ticking away onscreen. For starters, even if viewers are not used to seeing moving images of extreme duration, they are even less accustomed to spending very long periods of time in an art gallery. The Clock may be the art world's solution to the conundrum of displaying moving images in a gallery space. Usually, experiencing a work in medias res isn't conducive to understanding it, and most patrons don't spend the appropriate time with moving images in a gallery space or museum because it is so easy to leave or simply look at something else. With The Clock, you can come in whenever, and it's not really necessary that you see the entire work to develop a sense of what it is about.


Christian Marclay, stills from The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with stereo sound standard definition footage at 1024 x 576 (16:9 aspect ratio) 25 fps, 24 hours, looped (© Christian Marclay; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York)

Not that you could see the whole thing, even if you wanted to. Even though it takes the form of an Internet viral video, part of the piece's great allure results from the manner of its exhibition and attendant scarcity. It is not a video—it is an event, an occasion, the rare moving image art that reinscribes the aura Walter Benjamin thought lost in the age of mechanically reproducible art. It is more or less impossible to take in a single sitting, and the opportunities to even attempt to do so are rare. Furthermore, there are very few opportunities to see the work, period, unless you live near, or made pilgrimage to, one of the few venues where it has been on display. There is the slightly trainspotty or triumphalist pleasure of merely having been in its presence. For the vast majority of people, however, The Clock is something heard about, not seen. Following an art world model of exhibition and reception, it is issued as an edition of six (which grants the purchaser those IKEA couches and the software necessary to synch the clock to the real world) at a cost of nearly a half million dollars. In these respects, it seems The Clock not only borrows its material from narrative cinema, it borrows from its methods of production as well. It is the art-world equivalent of a blockbuster: line up the right cast of characters and an esteemed director, find the backing of a powerful studio, and spend plenty of money enabling a high-concept elevator pitch through big-screen spectacle. It took Marclay and his team of six assistants three years (so the piece is also about the time of labor) to bring the piece from conception to screen.


Christian Marclay, installation view of The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with sound, 24 hours, White Cube Mason's Yard, London, October 15–November 13, 2010 (© Christian Marclay; photo: Todd-White Photography; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London)

As a 24-hour-long loop, The Clock isn't merely about time, it is also about extreme cinematic duration. Thom Andersen has recently written that "since it's physically impossible to see all of The Clock in a single screening, it is beyond criticism."2 That does not mean, however, that it is beyond critical inquiry. Missing from the work are examples of films that explore time in way more abstract or philosophical ways. Their absence is necessitated by their inability to fit into the visual schema of the piece, of course, but that doesn't mean that there aren't many other ways the cinema displays and thinks about time. The seven-minute penultimate shot of Antonioni's The Passenger, 1975, for example, is a tracking shot out of and back into a Spanish hotel, and encompasses post-colonial history, identity theft, political assassination, love, life, death, and cinema's capacity to capture not only time, but space as well. Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, 2002, on the other hand, is a single 90-minute unbroken shot that wanders through the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, conflating the real time of the film with the passage of hundreds of years of history, from imperialism to totalitarianism.


Christian Marclay, installation view of The Clock, 2010, single-channel video with sound, 24 hours, White Cube Mason's Yard, London, October 15–November 13, 2010 (© Christian Marclay; photo: Todd-White Photography; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London)

Back in the art world, there is Douglas Gordon's own orbit-spanning 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, in which the artist's video installation slows down Hitchcock's 1960 film from 24 FPS to 2 FPS, attenuating time and replacing the taut suspense of the original film with a hallucinatory, dreamlike display of images that upends the viewer's narrative and symbolic expectations one might have incurred from previous screenings. In other words, what is important is not simply that the piece is 24 hours long, but that it transforms the work and allows us to think about cinematic time in a capacious way. To realize, in essence, that cinematic time is not only about the mastery over the moment, but over other registers of time—its ability to move forward and backward in time, to slow or speed up time, to freeze time and to repeat time.

Even the most well-known artist's film about duration, Warhol's Empire, 1964, an eight-hour fixed-camera portrait of the Empire State Building, might seem like a stunt or an endurance-contest dare between film and viewer (it is said that the director himself never made it through a screening), but its severe paring down of cinematic form forces viewers to consider the limits of spectatorship, the limits of representation, and the relationship between the still and moving image. In terms of its lack of editing and single visual composition, Warhol's movie isn't merely an anti-film, it is the anti-Clock. Warhol's movie of a building has been written about as a face, a phallus (it is arguably the world's longest dick joke), and as a "star" (of the cityscape, of architecture, of iconicity). But it is also a filmic version of a Duchampian readymade, and thus can be understood in relation not only to Warhol's portraiture, but also to his simultaneous embrace of and the weird distancing effect present in his representation of ubiquitous icons—the Coke bottles, the soup cans, the Brillo boxes. The Empire State Building reads less like portrait and more like an object of study, something right above our noses that we've never really seen before. It thus manages to be simultaneously unassuming and monumental. The Clock is another simple idea that no one else got to first, made magisterial by dint of its herculean assemblage. But whereas Empire managed to anticipate a whole host of art practices and forms (minimalism, structural film, conceptual art, a mediascape in which everyone is both simultaneously looking at and making mediated images) without its maker breaking a sweat, The Clock is a Zeitgeist-y work whose story hinges on the intense labor (both acknowledged and tacit) of its birth.


Notes
1. Hollis Frampton, "A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative," in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), p. 147.
2. Thom Andersen, "Random Notes on a Projection of The Clock by Christian Marclay at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 4:32 pm, July 28, 2011–5:02 pm, July 29, 2011," Cinema Scope 48 Fall 2011, available at:
http://cinema-scope.com/features/random-notes-on-a-projection



Gregory Zinman, PhD, is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His writing on experimental film and media has been published in The New Yorker, American Art Journal, and Film History, and he is currently working on a book titled Handmade: The Moving Image in the Artisanal Mode (www.handmadecinema.com).

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